|Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Courtesy Guernica.|
ur first visit was in 1993. I believed Baba was coming to Oklahoma to stay. We drove to the airport around noon on a blistering Oklahoma Sunday. Maman allowed us to miss church for it and we took pleasure in putting on casual clothes, packing bottles of ice water. Kian brought an old Game Boy. The sun blazed through the windows and within five minutes we were sweat-stained and nauseated. Kian and I wore thrift store shorts and t-shirts with faded brand names; Maman wore jeans and a nice blouse from Iran. She was trying to strike a balance. Iranian women fret constantly over their looks, but she didn’t want Baba to think she missed him.
She fired questions at us, oblivious to the answers. “Are you excited to see your Baba?” “Kian, do you have your poem?” “Niloo, I told you, no shorts. Do you want your Baba to think you’ve become some kind of American dokhtare kharab?”
Maman’s biggest fear for me since the day I turned thirteen (a year earlier) was that I would become a dokhtare kharab, a “broken girl,” which is the Iranian way of describing a sexually free person who happens to be female—she thought I was more prone to it than average, because of my shared DNA with Baba. The male version of the word, as in most cultures, is something along the lines of playful.
Kian nudged me in the ribs and started singing an annoying song he had made up that made Maman giggle. Sometimes she would tease him by humming his toddler revolution song. “The caged bird is heartsick of walls,” she would croon in a baby lisp. Kian would sing the rest and they carried on their mother-son infatuation. I hated it. I didn’t know to miss Baba in those moments.
Maybe because I was a daughter, or because I was Baba’s daughter, Maman reserved all her austerity for me. She forbade me from wearing a drop of makeup and only gave in to my demand to shave my legs when she saw that my hairiness defied modesty and she could neither let me out looking like that nor force me to wear long pants in the stifling Oklahoma heat. Always crammed in tiny rooms with Maman and Kian, I craved the smallest privacy.
Sometime during our years as asylum seekers, I stopped playing children’s games. I forgot books I had loved and lyrics to Farsi songs, and started to dream about having my own apartment in a big city. In Oklahoma, I made secret plans, borrowing college admissions guides from the public library, readying myself for my second escape—this sleepy flatland was no home to me, and it would be worth any hard work and indignity now if I could just find my own. The other children had never met someone from the Middle East, never considered dreams or demons other than their own, and they didn’t invite me into their narrow universe. They didn’t explain their song lyrics, the rules for dodgeball, or how to pronounce the many words I mangled. Left to entertain myself, I lived inside my imagination. Soon I decided that to find safety here and to re-create the sense of home, I needed two things: money and the air of being a real American (an elusive formula that brought me daily shame). In order to prepare for my excellent future in a big city, I lived off pita bread and egg whites, swam a thousand meters daily, and never stopped moisturizing my legs. I studied twelfth-grade calculus seven hours a day.
“He won’t think I’m kharab,” I said to Maman; “he’s seen my grades.”
“Grades have nothing to do with it,” said Maman.
I scoffed. “Are you new to Baba? With enough As, I could go to school naked.”
“Niloo!” She slammed her hands on the wheel. “Don’t start.” She took two breaths. “Please remember that, to your Baba, you will seem so changed. He might have a hard time. Just try to be the sweet Niloo and Kian I know are still in there.”
I started having nightmares around the time we arrived in the first refugee hostel. The dreams changed over the years, but never disappeared, and I came to think that missing limbs and phantom stranglers and dying parents were simply the price of sleep. At fourteen, most of my nightmares involved my classmates exposing me for this or that. I was afraid they would find out that I had missed an entire decade of American music, that I was from that country that forces women into drabness, that I knew only about a quarter of their slang. I was afraid they’d find out I was afraid. My only antidote to the fear was math and science, concrete pursuits Baba had taught me to trust (a purer love of study didn’t kick in till years later).
Some nights I dreamed about Baba kidnapping me and, in those dreams, his eyes were dead and I knew it was the other Baba, the opium Baba, the tooth-hunting Baba, and that I had to get away.
“Where will he sleep?” I asked, though we had been through this.
Our apartment was nothing remarkable as immigrant situations go, but to me it was a nightmare. Some time spent in typical pass-through countries, Italy and the United Arab Emirates, had depleted the funds. We had Maman’s small income and a dark, two-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a two-story complex. At first, Maman and I shared a room. Then Kian and I. And soon, we would probably switch back. It depended on who she thought needed more privacy at the time, herself or Kian. Never me, because privacy was the sole missing ingredient between me and dokhtare kharab. She kept it from me like the accidental drop of egg yolk that might turn a bowl of fluffy meringue peaks into a flat, sloppy sugar soup.
We agreed that Baba would sleep in one bedroom with Kian, and I would share with Maman again. We also agreed that Maman’s “friend,” Nader, who had come from Kermanshah before the revolution, would not stop by during Baba’s stay. On most nights, Nader would appear around six or seven and cook various delicious meats for us. He always had pungent things marinating and sloshing in clear bowls in the fridge—goopy red and yellow mixtures full of fleshy raw chunks that became exquisite after a quick bake or sauté or barbecue. Nader could stand shirtless in headphones, cigarette dangling from his lips, holding a skillet of broccoli and looking like a doofus, then flick his wrist and somehow land every single piece on its other side, not a spear burned. Sometimes he’d ask me to add a pinch of turmeric, and when I did, he would wince. “A pinch, kiddo, a pinch!” As if a pinch means anything.
“Don’t call me kiddo,” I said, “and pinches aren’t really a scientific measure.”
I wished Nader would go away. I vaguely knew that Maman and Baba had divorced—Baba had been unwilling to leave his village, his respectable job, his roots, and his opium. After Maman fell into great danger in Iran, they had no choice but to go their separate ways. Besides, Baba had helped her escape, and if they had stayed married, how could he deny involvement during the hours of questioning that followed? I understood the situation, however begrudgingly. It wasn’t loyalty to Baba that made me dislike this new man—Nader was just annoying.
On the phone, as I grew up, Baba always asked for stories and photos, especially photos. “Send a stack of the doubles. Anything you’ve taken, not just the special ones.” And when we were too distracted, he would find excuses: a document he needed or a magazine he wished to read or a bottle of special American moisturizer. Maman made time to send these items, and so he would say as he gave her his lists, “Please include a stack of the kids’ photos. Don’t forget.”
Eventually, when Maman became busier with two jobs and church and night school, when I started high school and swimming and more college prep, the only thing that would get us to the post office was requests for therapeutic socks, because we knew Baba wasn’t lying about the dangerous varicose veins in his legs. We imagined him aging in that difficult country where these things aren’t so freely available and people learn simply to suffer. So, every few weeks, Baba would call. “Please send more of the special tight socks,” he would say, then add, “Maybe throw in a stack of your doubles. Where was the last roll you shot? Is it a good story?”
It would be unfair to say that by fourteen, I had forgotten my Baba. I thought of him often. But I stopped missing him and, before this trip was announced, I had stopped actively hoping that he would join us. It began to feel likely that he never would, and that my parents’ promises of those first months out of Iran were mostly lies. I became a teenager. I worried about my future constantly. I was desperate to fall in love, and I was desperate to keep from falling in love, because I knew that I had to flee Oklahoma, as my mother had fled Iran.
Now, by some miracle, Baba had secured a tourist visa to visit us, and I cradled the secret hope that he was joining us for good—Baba and I would have to scheme, of course, as in the old days when we snuck cream puffs into the house; Maman had said nothing of it. We arrived at Will Rogers World Airport a few minutes early, feeling awkward in our skins, in our haircuts and clothes. We waited at the terminal for him to disembark the plane from JFK Airport. As the passengers filed out, some of them fresh from a short trip, others ragged after long international flights, I felt a shiver in my leg. I wanted so much for every next passenger to be him. Each time I saw the shadow of a grown man turn the corner, or a familiar gait, or a person laden with bags, I was certain it was him and my right hand flew to my right ear. If there’s a gesture more soothing than pulling on one’s own earlobe, I have yet to find it, and in those first immigrant years this habit became a second tic for me—I had rid myself of the one in my neck shortly after our arrival. Maman took my hand and held it to her chest, and we continued to wait.
In the end, he surprised us, walking out last, with the flight attendants, smiling his big, hairy Cheshire grin as they handed him his four cigarette lighters and book of matches. “He’s shorter,” I whispered to Maman. She didn’t hush me or tell me to watch my manners. She looked at Baba in a daze and said, “You’re taller.”
When he saw us, he burst into an exhausted guffaw, laughing as he spread out his arms and tried to scoop up all three of us at once. It was an awkward motion, and passersby kept glancing at us, but there was no stopping it. Baba’s joy was like a piece of luggage tumbling down a steep escalator. You don’t try to stop a thing with that much mass and momentum. You get out of the way. He was laughing and crying, swiping at his eyes with a big hairy hand, making such a show. I don’t remember my Baba having ever been so loud, so graceless. Red tufts burst from his shirt, which was unbuttoned to his chest. His hair was a mess, and now that I was taller, I could see the spot of bald in the back, among the baby-soft wisps that were still cut in a long, youthful style.
“Is this my Niloo?” he whispered, putting a sweaty palm to my cheek. Somehow my words flew away and I stood there dumbly, not saying hello, not saying It’s good to see you, Baba joon, as I had practiced. When he touched my cheek, I wanted to jump back, not because of the wetness of his hand but out of some forgotten instinct, an old fear. But I smiled. He said, “Niloo khanom, you’re so tall.” He looked at me for a long time, and when I tried to cut the silence by saying hello, he burst out again, “Oh, you have your incisors back! Let me see.” He was about to put a finger in my mouth, but I recoiled. My expression must have revealed my horror because his eyes darted to his shoes, he pulled back his hand, and he said, “You’re very grown-up, Niloo joon.” He sounded hurt, but I told myself that I had my boundaries, and I had no interest in overhearing nighttime whispers about how I need orthodontics or how I should have my wisdom teeth extracted early. No. I was fourteen. I wanted both of them to leave my body to me.
Baba turned to Maman, “Salam, Pari joon,” he said, his voice kind and low, as if greeting a fellow mourner at a funeral. They hugged silently as Kian and I shifted our weight, fiddled with our backpacks, pulled strings from our fraying shorts. Baba shook Kian’s hand, a proud half smile frozen on his face, and we walked to the car.
Without thinking, Baba went to the driver’s seat, and then there was an awkward moment when they switched. “My turn to sit in front,” said Kian.
“Your Baba is sitting in front,” said Maman, her voice flat and stripped of all emotion so expertly you’d think she were corralling children onto a bus.
“I’ll sit with Niloo in the back,” said Baba. At first I was uneasy. So, to cut the tension, I asked about Uncle Ali—how was he? Did he have a girlfriend? Did he ask about me? Did he know that I have front teeth now? Baba laughed. “He misses you very much,” he said. “And he’s seen all your photos. I made sure he saw.”
The rest of the way home, he asked me questions. About school, about my teeth, my favorite subjects, how much science I had learned. I was happy to drone on about science, since it was safe and concrete. “Pari.” Baba looked up at Maman in the middle of my summary of igneous rocks. “Why does Niloo have an accent?”
“I don’t have an accent!” I shot back, because again they were discussing details of me as if I were a defective blender.
“Do you speak Farsi with them?” he asked her.
“Yes, we speak Farsi,” she said, “but they speak English all day at school.”
He grunted and looked at me, his childlike grin breaking out again like a fast-moving rash. “Do you read poetry?” he asked. I shrugged. He began talking about the importance of poetry, about all the hidden meanings of his favorite poems. As he spoke, he sometimes touched my arm or my shoulder or my cheek, as if I were a piece of silk he was sure he was going to buy. Once, he pulled me to him and gave me a hug that lasted almost a minute, patting my back until I had to push on his chest and free myself. He didn’t seem to mind. He blathered on and on, and I thought, did he always talk this much?
Halfway through his speech, which was animated and fiery, he rested a hand on my knee. I swept it away with a swift motion, like batting away a spider. He gasped, but he didn’t say anything. I’m sure he took it as some kind of weak and misguided fear of men that I must be developing, which he would discuss with Maman later. “Why are you making her this way?” he would say. “Is it your church?”
Despite my fading memories, I remembered that Baba was a hugger, a kisser, a patter of backs and squeezer of cheeks. But no man had hugged or kissed me in more than five years. The most affection I got from Nader was an occasional high five. Now, Baba squirmed on the sweaty plastic seat beside me, tucking his hands in his lap, projecting his distress—something invisible seemed to be slipping from his grasp in dramatic fashion, and my only clues to his private struggle during that forty-minute car ride were his clenched jaw and his pale knuckles pressing into the seat cushion. He looked straight ahead, hungrily chewing his mustache, as if trying to calculate his real daughter’s coordinates. He looked like a man who, given a modicum of magic, would travel through time and take back those six years apart, and the careless tooth extraction before that, and whatever else may have caused his daughter to swipe away his hand. I was old enough to see the pain in Baba’s eyes, and if the moment hadn’t passed so quickly, I would have said that it wasn’t him, that I just needed air-conditioning and some water and a quiet moment alone.
But I didn’t say anything to assuage his sadness. There are creatures a person can see at thirty to which she has no access at fourteen. In youth, she can see only the end of the creature’s tail or the line of its back as it passes in the dark. I know now that Baba wanted to pick me up and wave me around like he used to do, to squeeze my face and check my teeth. I barely said hello, arms crossed over my t-shirt. All I wanted at that age was to disappear, but this stocky red-mustachioed man had showed up ready to experience America loudly. Over those weeks, he ate ice cream twice a day, counted the price of everything by the number of root canals it took to earn it, and his addictions endangered us more than once. We took him for Mexican food; he took one bite of guacamole and said, “Is taste like Nivea cream.” He asked me if I had learned to hold a cigarette like a lady, and he offered pistachios to the plumber.
At home, Baba looked around and nodded at the couch, grunting under his breath. “I’ll sleep here,” he said. “No need to trouble yourselves.” The apartment contained no notable signs of Nader, but it was tiny, with a half kitchen jutting into the living room and no dining room or foyer. The shared space consisted simply of a couch pushed up against a small window, a round Turkish coffee table, a television on a chipped cabinet with the glass missing, and two metal chairs with thin green cushions. All of this sat atop a horrid blue carpet that came with the apartment. The kitchen, though, was fully stocked with knives and woks and pots of many sizes because of stupid Nader and his obsession with frying and sautéing and marinating everything, always wearing his stupid headphones. A part of me wished he would show up here all shirtless and chain-smoking and blasting U2, so Baba could tell him he was a doofus and throw him out. Imagining that scene made me giggle and when Baba whipped around at the smallest sound of possible joy, I fixed my face into a frown again.
He placed his suitcase beside the couch and did a quarter turn, first one way, then the next. Then he turned back to Maman, and said in a voice that didn’t sound casual even to me, “Pari joon, can I use your phone?”
Maman stood behind the counter in the open kitchen, piling homemade cream puffs on a plate. “Why?” she said. A look of alarm passed over her face as she spoke. “Do you want to call Iran? It’s late there.”
“No,” he said, rummaging through his pocket. He stared at a scrap of paper for a moment and plunged his hand back into his pocket.
“Oh, no, no, no, Bahman,” said Maman, dropping a teaspoon and bursting into the living area. She spoke in a loud whisper, pushing the words out as if through a gap in her front teeth. “You won’t call any friends here. No friends, do you hear me? How did you even find someone?” He started to speak, but Maman interrupted. “That’s the end of it. No socializing.” She stormed back into the kitchen and started rewrapping the cream puffs as if she were punishing a toddler with no dessert. Her fingers shook as she worked, cream splattering, her pretty blouse staining. “We just got our green cards,” she muttered. “How can you be so foolish?”
Everything seemed weary and intense with Baba in the room. Even the harsh light through our single window drained me, though I had felt it and sat in it and used it to warm my legs every day for years. Sometimes in our earliest days, I used to sneak out of bed when Kian and Maman were asleep and stick my bare stomach against the glass. The heat was such a luxury. I pretended I was on a tropical island.
“Calm down, Pari joon. Everything is fine,” said Baba. “No need to put those away.” He smiled wide at her, and at her pastries, with boyish contentment.
Maman stopped, her shoulders dropping, a small breath escaping. She looked at her hands, only now realizing that she was putting away the sweets she had spent all week baking. She unwrapped them again and placed them on the coffee table.
I didn’t know what had happened between them, of course. I was young and had no idea whom he wanted to call and why. Now I know many Iranians flung far from home, strangers turned friends by virtue of a single common trait. In their adopted cities, exiled Iranians have no more caretakers or errand boys to deliver their illegal indulgences. They learn how to make friends fast.
Late that night, after Kian and Maman had gone to bed, I found Baba on the phone. He sat cross-legged in his undershirt and pajama bottoms atop a bright-orange sleeping bag on a row of couch cushions that Maman had set up on the floor. Holding his glass of hot cardamom tea, his knees pulled in tight, he looked like a person sitting on a life raft, crouching low, trying to keep all his limbs in. He whispered in Farsi, and so my first thought was that he was making an expensive call to Iran against Maman’s wishes.
But after some nodding and a few approving grunts, he said, his accent thickening to the village drawl, “It’s an honor, Agha. . . What luck to have friends in faraway places. . . No, don’t speak of it. I’m your servant. Until tomorrow.” With that, he hung up. When he saw me watching, he called me to him. “Come here, khanom who looks like my daughter. Do you have any pictures to show your Baba? New ones?”
I shook my head. I didn’t move toward him, a comfortable old fear returning.
He said, “How is that possible?” and he threw up his hand in that single dismissive gesture that our people share with Italians and Spanish and all fiery people—not the Dutch. “In Iran, girls your age are addicted to photos. Your cousins, do you remember them? Your cousins sit around your grandmother’s living room and play with their Polaroid all afternoon. I brought some. Do you want to see?”
“I hate photos,” I said. Recently my Iranian nose had started to bloom, and my skin was oily and dark. Worse, my front teeth had come in crooked. The idea of Baba suggesting orthodontics terrified me. So, I added, “It’s vain and un-Christlike.”
“Khak too saram,” he said, dirt on my head. His eyes bulged like the science-class hamster after a long squeeze. “What the hell are you talking about, Niloo joon?”
I shrugged. He hauled himself off his haunches and turned on the television. Sitting beside the monitor, he changed the channels manually until he came to a trashy soap opera. He craned his neck toward Maman’s bedroom and, hearing no sign of wakefulness, he said, “See that woman there?” He pointed to a heavily made-up, coiffed, and sprayed woman in a halter top having an animated argument with a similarly adorned rival. I blushed at the sight of so much exposed American breast in Baba’s presence. But he didn’t seem to notice. He said, “I’d rather you grow up to be this useless to the universe than to become a religion pusher. If this disaster,”—he pointed to the lady, his fleshy finger in her face—”is absolute zero in value, then Jesus and Allah pushers are deep in the negatives. All this God business will mess you up, Niloo joon, and then it will kill you. And you won’t go anywhere after. Understand?”
I nodded, unaware of a profound confusion taking root. To Maman, Jesus was our family’s only remaining identity. He was our way out of Iran and the reason Kian and I would go to top American universities. Little else had mattered in Iran, but she was even more fervent here. Having lost her profession, her volunteer work, and her community, exiled in remotest Oklahoma, she lived only for Him. Her every decision had to be seen to serve her God—even the choice to partner with Nader, who was peripherally tied to the church, and, if you ask me, mostly in it for the community outings and sanctioned access to multicultural divorcées.
“If you want to find God,” said Baba, as he turned off the TV, “study the natural sciences. Earth, the human body, anything you can touch, or see traces of, or watch through a microscope. Then, if your spirit is still hungry, memorize poetry. That’s the only immortality available, Niloo joon, those voices from another time.” I didn’t argue, since his instructions didn’t seem to interfere with Maman’s faith. I could easily satisfy them both, so why bother trying to figure out who was right? “Did you know that in the old days, every Persian scholar was expected to write in verse? Half of Avicenna’s medical writings are in verse. There’s so much mystery and beauty in the physical world without resorting to fantasy and God worship.”
Rearranging himself on his raft, Baba said, “Go find some photos.” He picked up the receiver again and dialed from a number in his cupped palm. I hadn’t noticed the paper scrap nestled there. I asked whom he was calling, but he waved me away, muttering something about having to ask a hundred times for photos. I counted the number of digits he dialed—only seven. He wasn’t calling Iran. He wasn’t even calling Oklahoma City. Whoever his friend was, he was right here in our tiny suburb.
I went in search of my eighth-grade album. Maman had helped me cut photos of my friends and activities into fun shapes and paste them into a book along with colorful images from magazine ads (fruits and candies and things; no cosmetic or alcohol ads, even though they had the best graphics. I begged her to let me include a gorgeous lime wedge hanging off a dewy, crystalline vodka bottle. She scowled, horrified). My search must have taken a while, because when I returned to the living room, the strangest scene was unfolding. Baba was answering the front door in his pajamas, shaking hands with Nader.
I lingered in the hall, waiting for something to happen. Maman was in the deepest sleep. With two jobs and church, she slept every minute that didn’t lead directly to someone’s physical or spiritual feeding. Even if she had known that Nader and Baba were meeting now, she wouldn’t have wanted to be woken. The poor don’t get the luxury of fussing over awkwardness. They deal. So I stood in my turquoise socks, one foot on my thigh like an ostrich, my album tucked under my arm, waiting for someone to punch someone, like in the movies.
“Hey, kiddo,” Nader greeted me, slapping Baba’s back as he entered. I held my breath. Surely Baba would explode at this rude gesture from a man a hundred years younger than him. “Been practicing?” He was looking at the foot on my thigh. Sometimes while at the stove, Nader taught me yoga moves from his travels. We would raise our arms and sun-salute as we sautéed. Spatulas in our teeth, we would downward-dog. I had good balance and flexibility and I liked practicing the poses on my own. But now, I dropped my foot and said, “Don’t call me kiddo.” I added, glaring, “Baba, this is Maman’s friend, Nader.”
Nader wasn’t bothered. “Finally,” he said, “I meet the famous Dr. Hamidi. It’s an honor. Do you want a smoke, Doctor?”
“I don’t smoke tobacco,” said Baba coldly. Though he did; of course he did.
“Neither do I,” said Nader. Though he did, too. The man smoked for breakfast; what was he talking about?
“Oh, yes?” said Baba. “Fine then. Much obliged, Nader joon.” He reached for his shirt. Why was he joon-ing Nader? They were out the door in three minutes, Nader’s lanky body in a graying t-shirt gliding out after Baba’s lumpier, buttoned-up one.
Hours later, the men returned, all backslaps and darting eyeballs and dancing fingers. They didn’t come in, but circled the apartment and stood on the shared terrace out back, talking quietly. I watched them through the glass and once in a while caught a word here or there, nothing meaningful. What could they have to say to each other? I retrieved my picture album from the cushionless couch where I had left it, and I slipped out to the back. They didn’t notice me, and so I lingered, thinking that if I was caught I could use the album as an excuse—Oh this? I’m not spying. Just wanting some father-daughter time.
An aside: Over the years in Amsterdam, I’ve studied Iranian fathers and daughters. Persian men belittle and abuse their wives, demanding total subservience. They insist on delectable suppers, sparkling floors, and clothes that smell of jasmine, all without fuss or complaint. Their mothers served them, after all, and they need it to survive, but they suffer an unconscious guilt over it. So, when chance gives them a daughter, a fear sets in. What if someone treats their hatchling the way they’ve treated their wives? They then sacrifice themselves to this precious creature. They become her practice field. They offer themselves as the ground holding her up, the shifting plates of their backs the terrain for her small feet. They teach their girls to be aggressive and cunning and to rule over them, to trick their fathers into buying presents, to bat their eyelashes and stomp on hearts, never to tell their own husbands, “I love you,” because that’s giving up too much power. Forced to witness this spectacle, frustrated wives (having once been someone’s muse and Machiavelli) spoil their sons, lavishing them with all the attention they lack from their husbands, teaching the next generation that a woman’s love is delivered never in words, only through service. The result of all this is generation after generation of entitled boy-men and brick-fisted, manipulative women, a dynamic that may offend the civilized, but is sustainable and self-propagating.
My Baba didn’t spoil me as other Babas did, but even he couldn’t escape this twisted kind of father-daughter love that garroted our social world. We saw it everywhere and it snared us too—a little. So, I waited by the door, eavesdropping for ten minutes before announcing myself. They were talking about Maman in Farsi, the story about Baba’s last days in Tehran University, when he would bring her berries and almonds from Ardestoon and hide them in her apartment with clues of their whereabouts, written entirely in verse. I knew this story.
“You were in love,” said Nader. “It’s a blessing.”
Baba scoffed. “Blessing,” he said. “A pretentious word. I was just lucky, like you. And I was open to it. In my gut, I was open to the thing.” Nader nodded; he never looked uncomfortable. Baba shrugged. “You’re a churchgoing man. You can call things blessings if you want. But I think everything is random, and I’m right.”
“You should come to church with us,” said Nader, taking three short drags of his cigarette. “I’ll make ribs after. We can have it with real rice, no sticky garbage.”
“Thank you,” said Baba. Nothing more. They puffed in silence for a long while. Then Baba peered into the dark. “I imagine things aren’t so lonesome here,” he said, his back bent, his gaze on his shoe, “when you’re in a church.”
Nader nodded. “That’s true,” he said, “for the kids too.”
Baba scoffed, his voice straining. “But they’ve forgotten their home. I tried to talk about Ardestoon. No interest. And Niloo’s becoming a damn ascetic. She says she’s given up ice cream; did you know this?” I could see the annoyance in Baba’s eyes. As a child, I had seen him become violent, but the monster was so deeply buried now—what would cause it to emerge? Not Nader. Nader wasn’t enough.
“Is the wedding soon?” asked Nader, leaning over the fence that separated the shared terrace from a small grassy area. A small wave crested in my stomach. What wedding soon? Whose wedding? One of Baba’s sisters? My beloved Uncle Ali?
Baba shrugged. His voice was now gravelly and low; I struggled to hear. “It’s just talk,” he said. “She’s a simple woman, a villager; I’d almost rather hire her to do some light work. I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m sorry. I don’t want to upset Pari.”
“Pari is fine, Agha Doctor,” said Nader. “She’s complicated. An iron cage around that heart. A fortress. She’s impossible to hurt.”
“Impossible?” Baba smirked and shook his head at Nader, as if to say, And you know Pari, do you? He put out his cigarette. Seeing that he was about to turn toward the apartment, I jumped out, afraid of being caught spying.
“Baba, I brought pictures,” I said, holding the album on top of my head.
“Oh, Niloo, my Niloo,” he sang as he followed me inside. “What good instincts you have. I want to see every picture you’ve taken. Where are those cream puffs?” He turned and waved goodbye to Nader, who took a last puff, licked his teeth, and made his way around the apartment and back to his car.
The next night Baba disappeared. He didn’t say where he was going and he didn’t take much, just his leather satchel with his cash, IDs, and green prayer beads. (“For secular counting only,” he often said. “Is a tranquilizing, to count.”) He left before Maman returned from her second job at the pharmacy. When she found him missing, she muttered to herself and ransacked his belongings. She opened his suitcase without the slightest hesitation or guilt. She simply unzipped it, tossed aside shirts, rummaged through underwear and socks. When her hand grazed an inexplicable lump, she took out one of Nader’s steak knives and she punctured the lining of his expensive suitcase as if it were the plastic around an English cucumber. In those days, there were no airport scans of suitcases and manual searches were random and never took into account the fact that a crafty bon vivant with money and connections might have false linings sewn in. “Shameless, lying dog,” she whispered as she pulled out the cotton wrapped cans of Caspian caviar, the boxes of homemade sesame brittle, the used pipes with that dangerous pungent smell.
For hours she raged. When Baba returned at six in the morning, she was still awake, waiting in a kitchen chair, breaking off split ends with her fingernails, her precious sleep sacrificed to the promise of releasing her fury on his gingery gray head the instant his wandering foot touched her property.
She knew where he had gone. And he didn’t try to deny it—he had found an Iranian exile with a manghal and a willingness to trade hits for cash. He had gone to this new friend’s home, sat at his sofreh and reclined on his floor pillows, smoked and eaten and drunk with him, and offered his family a “gift” of pistachios or fruit leather or caviar from home. The family had demurred, practicing the Iranian art of tarof, refusing the gift until it was offered thrice. Finally they had accepted it, knowing all along how many fifty-dollar bills would be tucked inside.
It seemed they had even given him a place to sleep it off, because Baba looked unchanged to me—only tired. My parents fought for hours. There’s hardly any point in recounting the details. Maman felt used. He had taken advantage of her kindness again, and he had endangered his own children’s future—what about our green cards? What about the impression he was making on his daughter, who was already showing signs of wantonness?
By the time the hot Oklahoma sun had peaked, Baba was tossed out of our home. He moved into the Red Carpet Motel, a dingy, musty place with dark rooms arranged in a horseshoe pattern around a cratered parking lot. I insisted on accompanying Maman to drop him off. I never admitted my fear that he would leave and return to Iran, maybe stopping to wave goodbye to us through a window. Kian came too, but he stayed in the car with Maman while I helped Baba carry his bags into the room. The bed was on wheels, a thin white sheet covering the mattress and a single pillow. The sight of a Cheetos bag and tissues left in the trash can by the last resident (or a careless maid) saddened me and I turned to go, afraid my feelings would spill out. Baba exhaled loudly and kissed me goodbye. “Go, Niloo joon, we don’t want to make her madder.”
And so began two weeks of Baba trying to atone for his bad behavior by taking us on exciting American outings. Eight of those days were spent at a Western-themed water park called White Water Bay, a strange amalgam of hackneyed Americana, exploitative Cherokee kitsch, waterslides, surf motifs, and overpriced Tex-Mex. It was unclear whether the schizophrenic park thought it was in Oklahoma, Montana, California, or (to my bafflement even back then) someplace near a rain forest.
Baba discovered the park while watching television in his motel room that first night. I knew the commercial, a frenzy of water splashing at the camera lens, hard-bodied twenty-year-olds chugging diet sodas and tackling each other, and a neurostimulant of a song by the Surfaris that was basically some cackling and the word wipeout howled over and over in an echo chamber.
The first time Maman dropped us off in front of the ticket station, I just wanted the day to be done. Many of my middle-school classmates hung out at this water park. And here I was, after years of trying to seem American, arriving with my mustachioed father, his great cask of a belly blanketed in ginger fur, with his neon Persian-script trunks and a cigarette barely hanging on to his lips. He was a spectacle just stepping out of the car, even before he bellowed in the ticket line, in broken English, “This! Oh, watery paradise! Let us find proper verse for this day!”
“Let’s not,” I said in a threatening whisper. “Baba, stop it! I’m serious.”
“Stop what?” he said in loud Farsi, exhaling a long tendril of smoke.
“No more Farsi,” I said. “And do you have to talk so loud?”
Kian didn’t seem to care. “Can we go on the big slide first?”
“See, Niloo joon? Kian has it right,” said Baba, taking the longest drag and flicking his cigarette right into the next line. He had switched back to Farsi. “We live for us. Not for the watchers. Be free now that you’re in a free country.” He paid for our tickets with a wad of cash roughly the girth of two Rubaiyats, and ignored the glare of the ticket taker as he lit another cigarette. On the way in, I’m pretty sure he gave one to a loitering teenager.
A few hours into the day, Baba, light-skinned and ginger, started to burn. He stood by our lounge chairs for ten minutes, rubbing lotion into his arms and legs with great care, leaving a white residue all over his body “for added protection.” Before I could rush off, he begged me to do his back. I wanted so much to run away, but his skin was flushed, even his knees a few shades redder. I hurried to lotion his back, looking around for classmates, but the sunscreen wouldn’t absorb. The thick layer of hair on Baba’s back was making it foam. “I’m done,” I said, and ran away to join Kian in the rapids, leaving Baba to fill his time alone.
Once or twice throughout the day, I spotted him ambling through the park, full of wonder in his straw hat and tangerine trunks.
Sometime later, Kian and I wandered to the Acapulco Cliff Dive, a monstrosity of a slide shaped much like a stretching basilisk, with a short initial drop, then a long, steep free fall that flattened out again near the end. When we arrived at the bottom of the ride, an athletic college boy was coming off the bottom, shaking and in turns swearing and cackling to himself.
“Wanna go on?” Kian asked, glancing at me quickly, then away again. I could tell he hoped he wouldn’t have to try this.
“I’m not getting in that line for a dumb slide,” I said, to spare him.
So we stood there and watched people barrel down. Two swim-team types later, a familiar shape took form at the top of the slide, which was so high the figures atop it were reduced to specks recognizable only by the color of their hats or t-shirts. But something about the gait of the person laboring to maneuver his bulbous body, basted in white, into starting position caught both of us unprepared. Kian looked at me, his brown eyes, already round as coins, widening. Then, before we could exchange two words, his body came thumping and slapping down as he screamed in ecstasy and abandon and fear, “Oh, great God,” again and again in Farsi.
He waved at us as he picked himself up from the landing pool. Then, striding past us as if we were ungrateful traitors and not his impressionable adolescent offspring, he said, “That slide is like a shot of liquor from a Rashti bathtub!” He pounded his gleaming lotion-white chest and strode off to get in line again.
The water park transported him, maybe in a way similar to his opium.
Baba enjoyed American life in deafening fashion, sliding down the Cliff Dive and eating too much ice cream, and going to visit his new “friends” somewhere we weren’t allowed to know. I’m glad now that he enjoyed it, because he never got another American visa. He got kicked out of the park twice for smoking in restricted areas and for giving out cigarettes to his “staff” of wayward boys, teenagers who fetched his candy and stood in lines for him in return for the smokes. (I spent a lot of time hiding with a book in the changing rooms.) After each eviction, he got back in by bribing the management from his gargantuan bundle of cash.
And so it went, in the sticky heat, until the afternoon I walked from a church-camp meeting to the Red Carpet Motel, thinking I would surprise him.
When I knocked, the door gave way. It had been closed hastily and hadn’t clicked shut. So I went in, cheerfully calling, “Baba joon, I’m here.” He had been with us for weeks, and I knew in the privacy of my heart that he would stay for good. Each time he joked with Maman, I grew more convinced. Being around him was becoming easier too, and I was forgetting to fear for my teeth.
The room was dark, though it was midday. The window was sealed shut and sodden towels covered all the cracks. The room smelled so awful, I had to breathe into my hand. The bed and the floor beside it were covered in photographs—his childhood with his mother in old village garb, his first days at Tehran University, black-and-whites of relatives from decades ago, a picnic in an orchard, then with Maman in Ardestoon in their early marriage, the family at the dinner table in our house in Isfahan, me and Kian as babies, and even some Oklahoma photos he had obviously stolen from my album. I ran a hand through them, looking for recent photos of Uncle Ali, but found none of Baba’s current life. I didn’t hear any noises from the bathroom and, though to an adult the scene would have been transparent, I just thought he had gone out to get some ice cream. He was obsessed with the astonishing array of American ice-cream flavors—butter (butter!), pecan and rum (rum!), raisin and cappuccino chunky chocolate.
I unlatched the window, gathered the wet towels, and went to the bathroom, thinking I would discard them in the tub. I pushed open the bathroom door, and he was there, on the closed toilet lid. He wasn’t sitting exactly, but slumped, his familiar white undershirt and pajama pants soaked in sweat. His knees were far apart, his hands hanging over them, twitching now and then, his head between his legs so that his silky youthful hair clung to his forearms, like moss against a rock.
He must have sensed me there, because he tried to raise his head. But it lay heavily by his thigh. I heard several deep breaths, efforts at breath. I said, “Baba,” and he finally managed it. He lifted his gaze and studied me, as one might study a stranger. I waited for him to smile, to say, Hello, Niloo, but his stare was so long, so dark and terrible, so empty of reason and memory, but somehow not devoid of feeling. Though he didn’t believe in heaven or hell or God or demons, wherever Baba was, it was otherworldly. Behind his glare was something raw and unprocessed, animal. Not hate exactly, though people who hate often have that look. It was terror.
After a swallow, he whispered something, in slow, croaking syllables. But a gale of other sounds overpowered his words. The trickle of water in the tub, this sweaty stranger’s pained breath, the screaming construction outside; these sounds rushed my ears instead. He reached for a box of tissues, but his hand trembled around it, near it, over it. Then he looked at me and asked for it, “Niloo joon. . . tissues.” But I couldn’t. He tried to hold on to a towel rod, his hand slipping twice, but I didn’t rush to help him. This was the man who, not so long ago, had carried me on his shoulders, whose fleshy back had been the ground.
All I could think to do was run away, leaving him there to recover or not.
The next day, as he gathered his bags for the airport and explained to Kian and me that his return flight had always been arranged for today (hadn’t he told us before? he was sure he had), I didn’t argue. He said, “Sweet Niloo, you know I can’t stay forever.” I hated him, not just for this, but because he had forgotten the previous night, my presence in the motel room. And though this was the first time he confessed breaking his promise to me (“I can’t stay forever”), I already knew. It was obvious in that motel bathroom that he had chosen to live away from me, that there was something he loved more: not poetry or medicine or family, but oblivion.
I often wondered how pleasurable it could be, and growing up, I asked Maman to describe his delirium to me. She said a few words about the bliss of it, the feeling of complete cohesion with the universe, but mostly she talked about the agony of withdrawal, the sweating, vomiting, and chattering teeth. She talked about her two attempts to cure him, locking him in the house for weeks, feeding and bathing him, bringing him music and books. The first time, he snuck out. The second time, he was so desperate for a manghal, so consumed by this creature need to be released, to chew off his ties and go hunt for it, that he chased her to the shallow end of our empty pool and beat her with a garden hose until she gave him the keys.
Though I’ve seen Baba three more times since Oklahoma, I can’t imagine how he lives now. Do his days look like mine, reading trade journals at his desk, stopping at the bakery and cobbler on the way home? Or does he spend his days under a leafy canopy in Ardestoon? Does he lie to his new wife? Does she watch for that moment when her clever, joyful husband might transform into something beastly? Nowadays in Amsterdam, a first puff of weed or hashish carries me to that motel with him, but I don’t dare try opium. My work offers me oblivion. Often I wonder, what is this urge to set off alone toward some imagined home? Have I inherited it? It must be the way the wanderer endures, a survival instinct from our earliest days. I try to picture it in aggregate—every day across the world, how many wretched travelers crouch in grimy bathrooms, searching for a way to explain that they can’t stay?
Every person has a dozen hidden faces. My memories tell me that Baba’s Oklahoma visit was a hedonist’s manic dash through a permissive, bountiful country, a brief pleasure hunt. I was too young then to see the sadness in his eyes when I crossed my arms and looked away, when I didn’t help him off that bathroom floor, and on our final day, when I hardly said goodbye. I see it now in photos, his arm perched awkwardly on my shoulder as I shifted my weight the other way.
* * *
Excerpt from the novel, Refuge, to be released by Riverhead Books in July 2017.
Dina Nayeri's second novel, Refuge: A Novel, will be released by Riverhead Books in July 2017. She is the winner of an O. Henry Prize and an NEA literature grant, a Granta New Voices pick, and a 2017 finalist for the Rome Prize. Her writing has appeared or is scheduled to appear in The Guardian, New York Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Granta, Vice, Marie Claire, and elsewhere, and has been translated into fourteen languages.